The Greatest Reggae Beats On Record

Be prepared to screw your head around. You’re about to enter a rhythmic world where up is down and front is back — at least that’s how reggae feels to hapless rock drummers who have grown used to dropping the bass bomb on the 1 and 3 rather than the 2 and 4. And unlike brush bluffing, you can’t fake your way through the classic one-drop feel, precisely because feel is what it is all about, with grooves that often have the slightest touch of swing that is easy to hear but difficult to play. A little bonus for drummers — reggae tunes often begin with clever fill, and they usually make great use of percussion. Here are some famous examples that underpinned these highly political tracks.

“Legalize It”
Band: Peter Tosh
Drummer: Carlton Barrett

If you couldn’t guess what the title track of Peter Tosh’s first solo record after leaving the Wailers refers to, the cover photo depicts him smoking ganja in a field of marijuana. Doesn’t leave much to the imagination. Rastafarians believe that ganja is a sacrament that brings one closer to God. Ironically, Jamaica has very stringent marijuana laws, so there are quite a lot of songs advocating its legalization. Master reggae drummer Carlton Barrett’s one-drop groove on this song is required learning for every budding student. There’s a subtle swing that’s essential to getting Carlton’s laidback feel.

“Higher Than High”
Band: Steel Pulse
Drummer: Steve Nisbett

Steve Nisbett plays a simple one-drop groove with the bass and snare on 3, and a little triplet hi-hat figure at the end of each bar. His big fill in the eighth measure is simply a snare hit and crash on 3. It perfectly suits this simple melodic song. He embellishes it a bit more later in the tune, but this is another great feeling, yet very simple groove worth learning.

“Calling Rastafari”
Band: Burning Spear
Drummer: Shawn “Mark” Dawson

This song is from Burning Spear’s (a.k.a. Winston Rodney) recent Grammy award—winning disc of the same title about unifying separate offshoots of the Rastafari religion. It’s an upbeat, cheerful tune peppered with brass and a slow groove that has the kick on 1 and the snare on 3. Check out Shawn “Mark” Dawson’s opening fill that’s played with the left hand playing rim-clicks while the right fills in on the snare and toms.

“Lion”
Band: Burning Spear
Drummer: Nelson Miller

A song about animal conservation, “Lion” opens with a common reggae snare fill and features a “steppers” groove that’s characterized by playing the bass drum on the quarter-notes with the snare anchoring the pattern on 3. This has syncopated rim-clicks that dance underneath the relatively nonmelodic vocals that are the trademark of Burning Spear.

“Guns And Roses”
Band: Lucky Dube
Drummer: Isaac Mtshali

South African singer Lucky Dube is one of the world’s most popular reggae artists, and like many others uses reggae to express his views on race, politics, and spirituality. On the song “Guns And Roses,” Isaac Mtshali plays some fusion-esque patterns that might be more expected from Dave Weckl than on a reggae disc. He makes great use of his China and splash cymbals to color this tune. Isaac was also the drummer on Paul Simon’s cross-cultural Graceland record.

“Dread, Dread”
Band: Sly And Robbie
Drummer: Sly Dunbar

Sly Dunbar and bassist Robbie Shakespeare are the best-known reggae rhythm section in the world. They’ve played together on thousands of recordings for a huge range of reggae artists. The fill at the intro is ametric, so the rhythmic notation is an approximation. Dunbar likes to mix acoustic and electric drums together, so the kit on this track has an electronic hi-hat that sounds as if it includes a triangle sample mixed into it. The toms are big, deep, and dead.

“Now That We Found Love”
Band: Third World
Drummer: Willie Stewart

Third World’s take on this O’Jays disco cover tune helped bring them international attention. The song maintains a strong, danceable quality, but adds real drums, a touch of reggae flavor, and a predominant bass line that helped establish the tune in dance clubs around the world. The tempo is bright, and like a lot of reggae, its feel lies somewhere between a straight sixteenth-note and the triplet feel chosen for the transcription. Willie Stewart plays a funky driving groove yet still manages some subtle tom embellishments that make this one a classic.

“Simmer Down”
Band: The Skatalites
Drummer: Lloyd Knibb

No discussion of reggae would be complete without mentioning its predecessor — ska. The Skatalites existed briefly, but their influence is still strong today. Drummer Lloyd Knibb plays an uptempo rimshot-driven disco groove on this tune about 15 years before disco was created. If that wasn’t innovative enough, he immediately follows it up with the ride pattern Bill Bruford used on King Crimson’s “Great Deceiver,” which was later borrowed by and is often mistakenly credited to Neil Peart. The late Carlton Barrett always credited Knibb as one of his great influences.

“Exodus”
Band: Bob Marley
Drummer: Carlton Barrett

“Exodus” features some of the tasty hi-hat work the genre is famous for, provided by the superb Carlton Barrett. He was Marley’s drummer from 1969 until the reggae legend’s untimely death in 1981. He is often credited with creating the one-drop groove that he so expertly demonstrates in this tune.

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